Nigeria is not a democracy. Its continual description as one is a reportorial error and a commonly held fallacy. This error arises from the inaccurate definition of democracy in terms of electioneering rituals. It is not a question of a particular national style or of a Nigerian “home-grown” variant of democracy; the extant model simply fails all the tests of democratic definition. If Nigeria is not a democracy, then what is it? At worst, one might say with some reason that Nigeria is a kakistocracy – a failing state with a dysfunctional system designed to promote the emergence of the worst breed as leaders. At best, Nigeria is merely in a post-military era.
Nigeria’s post-military era is characterized by the following: an authoritarian model of leadership of the sort exemplified by former president Olusegun Obasanjo and the twisted versions that abound at the gubernatorial level. An absence of real political parties that are ideological camps as against the oligarchic coalitions of personality cults whose only goal is power as an end in itself. Selections rather than elections are the norm. The candidates at various levels are simply anointed by robber-barons and godfathers in return for direct channels for plundering the public treasury. The process of selection may be masked by the use of bogus phrases such as “consensus candidacy.” Both President Yar’Adua and his main opponent, Muhammadu Buhari emerged as consensus candidates of their parties. In truth, it took a mixture of blackmail, vote-retailing and other forms of skulduggery to pave the way for both candidates. Other candidates came forth through even more questionable processes. Most of the so-called opposition parties were created to facilitate the ambitions of one politician. The national elections themselves were not a contest of ideas but of cash, brigandage and who could rig the most. In the end, the party with the most access to state resources and the greater number of self-serving oligarchs won.
Because of fundamental inequities in power-sharing and other inequalities in the federation, dubious and undemocratic contraptions such as zoning are used to maintain the balance of power between the various sectors of the polity fragmented by unimaginative politicians whether between north and south; Christians and Muslims or Majority ethnic groups and minorities. In effect, Nigerian elections guided as they are by considerations other than merit, do not produce the best people for public office. The emergence of Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan on the PDP ticket can be attributed in part to this dynamic. When the issues of geography, ethnicity and religion become benchmarks for elective office, then elections cannot be said to be free and fair. Contraptions like zoning (and federal character and quota system) have made the public square a circus of mediocrity, and are responsible for the dangerous devaluation of governance and our public institutions.
Rule of law, one of the pillars of democracy, is a myth. Despite its current popularity as an official mantra, the rule of law as a culture is something profoundly alien to our society. The rule of law implies that all Nigerians are equal before the law. This is, of course, a painful fiction. The Nigerian state having been hijacked by oligarchic cults cannot but deploy the instruments of state in furtherance of particular special interests. A privatized state cannot look upon all Nigerians as being equal; that is an impossible proposition, the pretence of which does not even exist. Corruption thrives because the arch-felons of the political class are well connected at the highest levels of governance. We live in the country of the big man – where private individuals ride about in motorcades protected by a police force that is at times indistinguishable from the under world. These are the unelected tin-gods that are above the law. Rather than the rule of law, what subsists is the law of the jungle in which might is right. In this context, the law is little more than a wind-vane whose course is dictated by the winds of political expediency.
As dire as all of these post-military indicators are, they are only symptoms of a more fundamental malaise. The point of this essay is not just that Nigeria is not a democracy but that it has never been democratic. The British bequeathed a gravely flawed polity to Nigerian politicians at independence. But before then, the British colonialists had been able to neutralize nationalistic politicians deemed to be too independent-minded while seeing to the promotion of those leaders that were more pliable to the interests of the crown. It is interesting to note that a number of our leading independence-era politicians were Knights of the British Empire and therefore soldiers of her Britannic majesty. They could not be realistically expected to have been guided by anything other than British interests. Considering the fact that the colonial government persecuted nationalist movements and severely abbreviated civil liberties, it would be accurate to say that Britain did not leave Nigeria with a sustainable democracy. Consequently the divide and rule tactics used by the colonialists to fragment the polity proved to be the undoing of the First Republic. Ethnic and sectarian animosities terminated that pseudo-democratic experiment and led to a bloody civil war.
The Nigerian state that came into its own in October 1960 was a colonial creation. It was not and still is not, as is the tradition in true democracies, an extension of the society. The state operated with the same premise as its previous colonial engineers; the monopoly of power and the control and distribution of the nation’s resources. It was the struggle for control that inexorably led to the demise of the First Republic and the civil war. Up till today, the deepest impulses of Nigerian institutions remain colonial. The army and the police were created by the British as instruments of suppression. The institutional software of these bodies as of the state in general remains programmed to repress the civil society. Archaic laws dating back to colonial times which circumscribe civil liberties are still in our books and are occasionally fished out by the state when an anti-government protest needs to be stopped or some social democratic force needs to be leashed. Since the sixties, a military-civilian-political complex has been in power. The same set of ex-soldiers, bureaucrats and mandarins are recycled with each regime. In fairness, President Obasanjo made the most effort to veer away from this cycle but then he unilaterally chose a successor whose credentials include membership of one of the nation’s political dynasties.
The dysfunction of the state is compounded by the sclerotic condition of the civil society. Democracy cannot take root in a society where illiteracy and poverty rates are actually increasing. It takes an intellectually and economically empowered populace to serve as a bulwark against dictatorship. In Nigeria, vast millions are still too unlettered to make sense of the issues or to even elevate our politics into the realm of ideas. Most are too poor to resist the allure of easy money proposed by cash and carry politicians. Bags of rice and bundles of cash still swing votes in most parts and if that will not suffice, brigandage and the brazen hijacking of state agencies will be used to manipulate the electoral process. The middle class impaired by a highly under-developed civic consciousness and having been traumatized by the criminal impunity of the political class tends to abstain from the political process entirely.
There is also the larger problem of whether the Nigerian society is culturally democratic. Democratic values like equality fall flat in the face of a widely held belief that some people are born to rule. Nigeria has been a republic since 1963, yet the state sustains the existence of traditional rulers – an aristocratic class that is theoretically non-partisan yet wields significant political clout. In colonial times, the British used traditional rulers as the third leg of a tripod that included local politicians to subvert the Nigerian people. Since then, traditional rulers have been part of an unholy trinity along with military governments and civilian politicians that has despoiled the country. During the dark days of General Abacha’s reign, traditional rulers were among the most vocal supporters of his proposed transmutation into a civilian president. That was their lowest point. Democracy cannot thrive where anachronistic relics like traditional rulers exist. Aristocrats with ideas of divine rights of kings are incompatible with republican ethos.
The abysmal level of civic consciousness in our society suggests that Nigerians are not really interested in democracy. Nigerians simply want the basic necessities – food, electricity, water – and whoever can produce them whether a uniformed kleptomaniac or a civilian despot will be fine by them. The greatest failing of military rule in the eyes of Nigerians was not its fundamental aberration but the fact that it failed to provide a better life. Nigerians were, and still are prepared to tolerate the moral failures of any regime that can put food on the table and at least, illuminate homes with electricity. Some activists will dispute this but nonetheless it is true. A sign of our society’s predisposition came up in 1999 when the new civilian administration coined the term “dividends of democracy” and defined it as the provision of social amenities like electricity, roads and water. Few questioned the validity of the expression at the time but its incongruence was obvious; some military regimes provided social amenities in the past but that did not make them democratic. Dividends of democracy should have been defined as the freedoms and the liberties occasioned by democratic governance. This redefinition entails a quantum leap for Nigerian society because it cannot grasp ideas. Values like equality, freedom of thought, expression and human rights in general seem too abstract and intangible for the Nigerian psyche, so tangibles such as social amenities are adjudged a better measure of governance.
A corollary point is that Nigerians will never take to the streets in defence of an idea; we are at the moment constitutionally incapable of contending for values. But Nigerians will fight when they think that their physical well-being and material survival is threatened. Instructively, the most intense mass action ever embarked upon by the Nigerian people took place in 1989 when Lagos and some other cities were rocked by riots in protest of the Babangida regime’s structural adjustment program. It is also no coincidence that demonstrations against fuel-price hikes were often successful simply because it involved an issue affecting the material well-being of the populace. The danger inherent in this trait is that Nigerians may in the future surrender a measure of their rights and freedoms to an authoritarian regime that can provide electricity, food and water. In those circumstances, Nigerians will willingly extinguish any prospects for real democracy in exchange for the proverbial “mess of pottage” and thus “democratically” enthrone a dictatorship.
Our cultural interpretations of power tend to be paternalistic. This stems from the traditional ‘Kabiyesi’ mentality and was further entrenched by the sustained period of military rule. This provides an enabling environment for godfathers and patriarchs of all kinds to dominate the polity. It also renders the society intensely susceptible to tyranny. Obasanjo’s presidency emerged as a creature of this culture. As a retired army general, a prince of Abeokuta, and a septuagenarian, he was fully compliant with all the requirements of our leadership culture namely, martial pedigree, aristocracy, nobility and age. The requirement of age explains the tendency towards gerontocracy in our leadership culture. It also explains the geriatric cycle of redundancy that has enabled so many veterans of Nigeria’s failed regimes to maintain a presence in the circles of power. The endurance of a paternalistic state designed to promote patriarchal leadership has rendered Nigerians incapable of appreciating the notion of elected public officials as servant-representatives. Consequently, our culturally flawed notions of leadership permit all sorts of undemocratic, if not barbaric exhibitions of state power. Despite the gramophonic refrain that heaps all blame for the Nigerian condition on what we call “bad leadership,” the fact is that it is doubtful if we would be able to recognize good leadership, were it to make an appearance on our shores. President Yar’Adua has described himself as a servant-leader but he is surely aware that most Nigerians want to be led not served.
To say that the Nigerian federation has fundamental problems is an understatement. All of our constitutions since independence have been documents manufactured by military era conclaves and not by truly popular conventions. There is an apparent logical incongruence in having the operating procedures of a democracy produced by anti-democratic forces. The federating units of our nation were decreed into existence by military dictators, who for the most part were intent on creating fiefdoms for politicians to control as feudal lords. The never-ending demand for more states to be created is rooted in this dynamic. In truth, the Nigerian federation as it was with the Gowonian 12 state structure or the First Republic four-region structure were (were with some adjustments) probably the best configurations of our federalism. But structural imbalances in our federation compounded by ethnic and sectarian instincts have taken the political competition for power to a very base level. Census exercises, for instance, are fraught with controversy because more numbers for any state or ethnic group means more resources, greater political representation and greater political power. Counting Nigerians has therefore always been a politically-charged exercise. In the last census, questions of ethnicity and religion were excluded to avoid any controversy over which faith or which ethnic group was the largest in the country. Even then, Lagos and Kano ended up squabbling over which of them was more populous. The question is whether administrative units like local government areas drawn up by military fiat can be sustained in the present dispensation without revision in the interest of equity. Indeed most of the states and the local government areas were not products of a democratic process – not even the processes prescribed by our undemocratically produced constitution – how can they now become the basis of democratic governance?
The Nigerian challenge is that of establishing a modern democratic nation state upon the rubric of what is essentially an agrarian society. Nigerians live in two realities. One is a fledgling country beset by numerous problems and still trying to compound itself into a nation by harnessing the strengths of its constituent parts. This is the Nigeria that has all the aspirations to democracy. The other reality is a feudal social construct in which political meanings are assigned to land and to land ownership. Traditional rulers remain symbols of this feudal construct. The Nigerian crisis has been the collision of these two realities over the course of our history. One realm aspires to social democracy; the other is staunchly agrarian and feudal in complexion and outlook. The primary resource in an agrarian society is land and around it revolves politics and economics. Resource control is not about oil but basically about land. The main legal instrument that vests the control of natural resources in the government is the Land Use Act. This act, a product of military dictatorship, is now firmly cemented in the constitution. Nigerian politics revolves around the control of land and its subsidiary resource – oil. Politicians contend for the control of land as their personal fiefdoms. The entire country is a vast piece of real estate that has been subjected to a hostile takeover by a venal ruling class. When, for instance, Fulani herdsmen and Tiv farmers clash in what is typically portrayed as a religious conflict, they are not fighting over religion but over land. People fight over traditional stools because the stools symbolize ethnic claims on geographical spaces. The indigene-settler dichotomy which is one of the most divisive concepts in Nigeria operates on this principle.
The solution is to separate land and oil from politics. Devolve power from the federal government to the state and local government so that the levers of governance will be at the grass-roots in effect bringing government closer to the people and bridging the yawning chasm between the state and society. This would give the people control over their social, political and economic destiny which is what democracy as defined by Lincoln is all about. We also need to take a second look at our constitution and our federal structure and work towards producing a document truly authored by the Nigerian people. The colonial and military era clauses in the constitution and in our statutes need to be expunged. Other measures pertain to the fine print and mechanics of democratic governance such as enhancing accountability, checks and balances and separation of powers.
But even with these solutions, there are two problems. The first problem is that these proposals, most of which have been made severally by social activists and a few politicians calls for something close to self-immolation by a recalcitrant and self-involved political class. Suggestions like devolution of powers and the relinquishment of control demand that a mercenary class of political operatives programs itself into extinction. Such a sacrifice, however redemptive, is one that Nigerian politicians are patently unwilling to make. The current administration has promised to review the constitution but here we run into a second problem. Is it not presumptuous for an administration whose mandate is the subject of legal disputation to review the constitution? Many of the elected members of the National Assembly who will carry out the review, having attained office through a heavily flawed electoral process are facing legal challenges of their own. There is a crisis of credibility and legitimacy which haunts the government, however noble its intentions might be. This is the summation of the post-military dilemma: Is a credibility-deficient, morally challenged system capable of reforming itself? Can constructive ends emanate from destructive means?
Democratization, the process by which a people gain control of their social, economic and political destiny is a matter of gradual evolutionary progress. It took one generation for Nigerian politicians riding a crest wave of nascent nationalism to at least nominally severe the umbilical cord of colonialism that bound us to the British Empire. It took two generations for us to come to jettison military rule as a political option and enter the post-military era. I believe that it will take at least another generation for us to transit from the pseudo-democratic pretensions of the post-military era into full-fledged liberal democratic nationhood. The process of emancipating the Nigerian people which began with the groundswell of nationalism in the 1930s will thus be brought to its fulfilment. In the interim, the democratization process will be buffeted by the uncertainties of a capricious political culture; it will either be accelerated by real reformers who somehow against the odds manage to emerge from the labyrinth of power or constrained by the dreamless conservatives that the system produces with distressing consistency. However, until true democratization is achieved, the Nigerian state will continue to face challenges to its legitimacy and credibility whether from ethnic militants such as those in the Niger Delta now fighting for resource control or in the worst case, from buccaneering soldiers attempting to turn back the hands of time by seizing power. In the best case scenario, civic awareness and social consciousness will reach a critical mass and impel a long-suffering citizenry to finally resist the perfidies of a bankrupt ruling class with a terminal intensity.